Book burning: a terrible freedom

By Gustav Niebuhr How many people remember the photographs of British men in Bradford, England, burning a copy of Salman … Continued

By Gustav Niebuhr

How many people remember the photographs of British men in Bradford, England, burning a copy of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses? It’s been nearly 22 years since that event–one which the crowd’s rage and destructiveness baffled so many people in western nations and triggered such outrage among those nations’ intellectuals. For months thereafter, we heard that Muslims in Britain and South Asia felt deeply insulted by a writer’s ridiculing the basics of their faith. But so much reaction–including death threats against the writer and his publisher–over insults to a religion in a book? To the secularized West, it made no sense. Writers, after all, write to move us, to touch us emotionally.

These days, an explosive reaction in response to a perceived religious insult seems much easier to comprehend. And that shows how different our era is from January 1989. Back then, the Berlin Wall still stood and people continued to talk about the Cold War.

Now, we have General David Petraeus, America’s best-known and best-respected military man, essentially warning the pastor of a tiny Gainesville, Fla., congregation not to burn a book because, Petraeus says, if the pastor does, that action will have international repercussions, harming American foreign policy in South Asia and putting the lives of American troops there at risk.

The book, of course, is the Qu’ran, as central to the faith of 1 billion-plus Muslims as Jesus is to one billion-plus Christians.

But we have other dynamics at work here: In the United States, short of causing arson, you can burn a book, just as you can America’s most sacred symbol, the U.S. flag. It’s Constitutionally guaranteed. Free speech.

The moral question here is, how do we handle our freedom, which permits us appalling, anti-social acts?

As an American who deeply believes in free speech, I regard burning a book as a nearly unspeakably terrible thing. It is an assault on knowledge, and the societal value of allowing people to read and decide for themselves whether what they read has meaning to them. Torch a book and you at least symbolically deny your fellow men and women that freedom.

What’s more, you replicate images of a political brutality–book burnings in Germany in the 1930s–that will haunt our planet for generations to come.

In purely secular terms, the Qu’ran has a 1,400-year history. Don’t such texts, which have earned such remarkable places in human civilization, deserve respect for that very status? And if such a book does not, then what human product does?

Gustav Niebuhr
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  • maddymappo

    Cultural/Religious Aggression and Belligerence”The moral question here is, how do we handle our freedom, which permits us appalling, anti-social acts?”Really? Such as building an Islamic culture center 2 minutes from ground zero which reminds the poor families of the victims of 9/11 that the religion of the fanatics is alive and well at their children’s grave site?

  • AKafir

    For crying out loud. Book Burning is purely symbolic these days. The days when you could burn a few books and deny people the opportunity to find out what is in the book are long long gone. The Quran is on the web and there are hundreds of millions of copies floating around. So the pastor burns a few (hundreds or even thousands) … big deal. It is far more important to listen to why he is doing it, and not that he is going to burn a few thousand pages.”Don’t such texts, which have earned such remarkable places in human civilization, deserve respect for that very status? And if such a book does not, then what human product does?”The torture weapons of the ancient world are kept in the museums quite “respectfully”. Would you respect such a weapon if it was used to actually kill a human in the present? Well guess what, the Quran is being used to kill many in the present. Does it deserve respect for that?

  • skramer1958

    Akafir and Futuralogic,Are you saying that any book burning is ok? Would you have a problem with burning a thousand copies of the New Testament?

  • cmecyclist

    THERE IS NO FREEDOM WITHOUT PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY!!!!This only shows that these idiots have no ability to think intelligently about the consequences of their actions.This type of behavior is just all too common in this world. People do things that they refuse to take responsibility for the subsequent responses. It’s NEVER their fault.It’s just too bad that this type of non-thinking STARTS at the top with our “illustrious” world leaders.

  • AKafir

    “Are you saying that any book burning is ok? Would you have a problem with burning a thousand copies of the New Testament?”Burning the Quran or the New Testament is an attempt by the burner to say that he considers the Quran or the New Testament to be evil and he wishes to get rid of it. As I under the Pastor’s motives are a bit more complicated than that. The value of his actions will be in the response of the followers. I am not religious and so I am not emotionally attached to either the bible or the quran. Personally I would be saddened more at the burning of a good book of science. But I am willing to bet that the Christians would react no more violently than they did when an Art Display at the Met had urine being splashed on the cross or the bible( I don’t remember the exact details). However, we know how the Quran followers reacted at a few cartoons, and hence I expect that they will go into a frenzy at the burning of the Quran. It says more about the followers of the Quran than about the pastor who is initiating this act.

  • bill_ice9

    If the actions of the church in Florida causes the death or injury of just ONE American soldier, then their actions are meaningless and counterproductive. Let the pastor go to the home of an unfortunate parents and inform them of the death of their child. End of story.

  • AKafir

    “Are you saying that any book burning is ok? Would you have a problem with burning a thousand copies of the New Testament?”Burning the Quran or the New Testament is an attempt by the burner to say that he considers the Quran or the New Testament to be evil and he wishes to get rid of it. As I under the Pastor’s motives are a bit more complicated than that. The value of his actions will be in the response of the followers. I am not religious and so I am not emotionally attached to either the bible or the quran. Personally I would be saddened more at the burning of a good book of science. But I am willing to bet that the Christians would react no more violently than they did when an Art Display at the Met had urine being splashed on the cross or the bible( I don’t remember the exact details). However, we know how the Quran followers reacted at a few cartoons, and hence I expect that they will go into a frenzy at the burning of the Quran. It says more about the followers of the Quran than about the pastor who is initiating this act. The response should be that the pastor is an idiot and lets ignore the moron. Instead we have warnings that there will be American deaths around the globe by crazed fanatics. Do I want to take the pastor’s right to free speech away because of that? No. He is burning a few books. If others take that as an excuse to kill humans then those killers should be brought to justice. Do you want to bet whether that will happen? How many were held accountable for the killings and destructions after the Muhammad’s cartoons episode?

  • ThomasBaum

    skramer1958 You asked of Akafir and Futuralogic, “Are you saying that any book burning is ok? Would you have a problem with burning a thousand copies of the New Testament?”I can not answer for Akafir or Futuralogic but as far as I am concerned it makes no difference to me if someone burns their own books but if they were confiscating these books and burning them, than it would be completely different.No one is confiscating these books and no one is making this book illegal.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • bwgorham

    “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” Heinrich Heine

  • SandyMoth

    We need to regard Islam as cult and to destroy cult we have to attack the faith and its symbols. Muslims need to understand that this old piece of prose has caused lot of misery for non muslims in the world and now either need to be replaced by some enlightened thought or this cult of religion needs to be contained. We need to hail the actions of Pastor Jones.

  • mwllacaca

    I understand the desire not to provoke muslims only in the context of the war in afghanistan as it may make it more dangerous for soldiers in the arena. It’s clear that the fundibots there will get a shot of religious fury from the Koran burning and may step up their aggression. But it may in fact help our soldiers to crush these backward relics as they will surely expose themselves as they attempt to attack our forces. I don’t believe this enemy can be reasoned with or that we can come to a lasting diplomatic solution anytime soon. Islam’s battle with the west has been running hot and cold for twelve centuries. The battle is getting hot again in our time, and our response so far has been tepid in comparison to what it would really take to neutralize them as a threat.

  • traffikator

    >>>As an American who deeply believes in free speech, I regard burning a book as a nearly unspeakably terrible thing. It is an assault on knowledge, and the societal value of allowing people to read and decide for themselves whether what they read has meaning to them.

  • juer

    In his 1821 play, Almansor, the German writer Heinrich Heine — referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, during the Spanish Inquisition — wrote, “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” (“Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.”)One century later, Heine’s books were among the thousands of volumes that were torched by the Nazis in Berlin’s Opernplatz.

  • joe100821

    Remind Pastor Terry Jones that he is taking a chapter out of Adolphe Hitlers book. Hitler enjoyed book burning too, so does Pastor Terry Jones .Burning the Quran is also a way to get your name on the front pages of the newspapers everywhere in the world. His church membership probably is declining so remedy it by adding more like minded radicals.

  • Henry5

    A government authorizing the burning of a book is completely unacceptable. On the other hand, when an individual chooses to burn a book, a flag, a bra, whatever (so long as they own it), it’s nobody’s business other than the person who torches their own property.

  • chrisfox8

    My takeaway: Pastor Jones missed his ration of special attention one morning and needs to make it up some way. And in spades, he has his picture on the front pages of newspapers all over the world and will be personally responsible for the murders of Americans in reach of Muslim rage all over the globe. I’m sure that’ll make him happy.

  • eezmamata

    How many condemnations of muslim atrocities are required before we can condemn the christians for burning books? Is there a specific number, 10, 100?Shall I attached a downloadable text document to this post enumerating all of them for you, can I then condemn book burnings, by anybody?They don’t need our permission to burn books, and we don’t need your stinking permission to condemn them. Talk about your hypocrites.

  • eezmamata

    WMARKW, your argument seems to be that the content of the book matters most. If it’s a book containing ideas that all condemn, then it’s ok to burn them.I’d like to see all religious books disappear from our concern, located only in museums perhaps where we can study the madness that made them possible. Just as we need to know of the madness that made Hitler possible.Burning books, books which many or most find acceptable to be burned … who decides which books are next? It tends to be religious or political fanatics who start the book burnings, and they’re never satisfied are they?

  • DwightCollins

    the U.S. Army burnt Bibles a few months back…

  • chrisfox8

    Some of these comments are really stupid. A lot of you are talking about generalities like rights and private property, or changing the subject to irrelevant acts committed by a few Muslim zealots, or even talking about freedom of speech. Only a few are actually writing about this new story: a bigot in Florida who’s managed to get himself into the news by deliberately provoking over a billion people with a gretesque and needless act of provocation. I’m on an international flight the day after Jones’ little tantrum. I don’t feel too damned good about his little quest for the spotlight. It’s tasteless, it’s pointless, it’s stupid, and he’s going to get a lot of people killed, probably including a lot of American troops in Afghanistan, just to get a little special attention.And you guys are thumping your chests talking about property rights. Bloody idiots.

  • antispy

    The guy just wants media attention, which the media was happy to provide. I mean he’s going to have to go out and buy these mass-produced Korans, and I imagine some (or all) of the proceeds from that actually go to Muslims, so he’s really just supporting their cause.As it turns out, the guy could easily be a Muslim extremist for all the good he’s doing for their cause.

  • PortlandBill1

    Freedom of religion is involved, which I submit presupposes respect for the other persons religion. Therefore, freedom of speech should be subservient. One does not light a match in a crowded theater. One should not indulge inn the inflammatory act of burning a Koran in a crowded world, especially when the security of our troops may be threatened!

  • Jihadist

    The moral question here is, how do we handle our freedom, which permits us appalling, anti-social acts?- Gustav Niebuhr*******************************************It is also an ethical question – don’t do what I do, do what I say etc; what I do has a legitimate basis and point etc; your morals, ethics and values don’t apply to me etc; just because I can I will do it etc. I have no idea how you are going to handle it when parents teach their children not to curse, drink, do drugs, insult people, to be sensitive towards others, not to do silly things like burning or tearing or stomping or shooting or flushing books down toilets etc. And then, it is alright for adults to burn flags, to burn books, to be insulting etc to make specific points and such as freedom of speech and action etc. as manifestations of protests or to make political points etc. No wonder kids are confused. Parents/adults do the very thing they tell kids not to do as they are, well, kids not old enough to drive, vote, drink etc. Adults can be confused and thus, confusing on morals, ethics and values. No one said said adults are not emotionally stunted, reason-challenged, and given to creative rationales for and to justify their actions.

  • jprfrog

    The burning of a book that few here have read (I wonder if Rev. Jones is among them) invokes ugly memories. More importantly, there is (at least in these comments0 something like a growing enthusiasm for a holy war. (For those of you who want Biblical text and verse, I recommend the Book of Joshua for a pep-talk.) Alas, there are more than a billion Moslems in our small world, and even with nukes I don’t think you can kill them all; nor will killing some of them persuade the rest to convert. After all, Christians (mostly) have been killing Jews for a couple of thousand years (most lately in an industrialized process known as the Holocaust)and we’re still around. It must feel good to hate so purely. Wrap up all your troubles in a kaffiyeh and dump all your rage on it. (In the old days they literally used a goat.) It’s easier than dealing with real problems. I suppose that’s the point.

  • movette

    Its not like this is the only copy of the koran. The act of burning this book is symbolic.

  • srb2

    As an agnostic I have no problem with any generally available book being burned as a symbolic act, protected from government intervention by the First Amendment. True, I think this Kristian Krazy in Florida is operating at the same delusional level as the Manic Muslimz and the Loonie Jewz. But I don’t object to his screwy behavior because in the U.S. we have, to a large extent, the right even to behave in a screwy manner.If the Manic Muslimz were to riot in the U.S.? That wouldn’t be protected by the Bill of Rights or any other U.S. laws. And my personal preference as to how to handle it wouldn’t be anything they’d like…

  • ColoradoJack

    I think some of the posters here are missing the real problem with the Koran burning, and also with the opposition to the mosque near Ground Zero. It’s not that it might motivate a few fanatics to violent acts they would not otherwise do. It’s that it fuels Al Qaeda propaganda that the US is not fighting Islamist extremists: it is fighting a war against Islam itself. When you burn a Koran, the message is that you hate Islam as whole. When you oppose a mosque near Ground Zero, you send the same message. Muslims know perfectly well which sect the 9-11 terrorists belonged to, and which type of Islam the New York imam subscribes to. I doubt that one non-Muslim American in 100 could name both types.Al Qaeda’s leadership must be absolutely delighted with both the Koran burning and the opposition to the mosque. Propaganda is most effective when it’s built on hard facts. They are going to get lots more recruits.

  • amm72

    I own a book whose contents I find absolutely vile. On more than one occasion I have thought about burning it, because of what it argues for and endorses. I will never do so, even though other copies exist, and even though I would be doing so privately. Book burning is just horrible to me, no matter who does it and why. Ideas should be fought by arguing against them or, sometimes, by simply letting them stand, because in the bright light of day they’re obviously repugnant.Burning the Koran is even more ridiculous. It blames the many for the (indeed reprehensible) sins of the few. Do all Christians want to be judged by the violent extremists of their faith and the war done in its name?This is vile. No other word for it. VILE.

  • richard36

    I’m still waiting for the thousands of moderate Muslims to speak out loudly about radical Islam. Silence indicates approval or acceptance.

  • eezmamata

    Religious fanatics like to burn things. Little Uncle Sam dolls hanging from sticks, books, witches … not too much difference in these minds when you get down to it.

  • datdamwuf2

    I do may not agree with the crazy pastor but I support his right to free speech. the author says: “As an American who deeply believes in free speech, I regard burning a book as a nearly unspeakably terrible thing”I’m sorry, I do not agree with this statement, it was true when book burning was more than symbolic, it is not true today. The unspeakably terrible thing will be if Muslims use the burning to justify killing and maiming people. The reaction of the Muslim world to the danish cartoons has certainly worked to stifle freedom of speech. I find the media’s self censorship since that episode to be an unspeakably terrible thing.

  • rboltuck

    In a country of over 300-million people, freedom for all, which is the principle that protects freedom for me personally, surely means that more than a handful of people will do outrageous things.So, “how do we handle our freedom”?Well, first by not responding to outrage with legal regulation, diminishing freedom for everyone.Second, by ignoring acts by those whose views we do not personally respect. Why should lunacy by lunatics be offensive? (I’m not offended by the guy wondering the street with a sign that says the CIA, supported by my taxes and votes, has implanted a microchip in his brain.)And third, by growing a thick skin, which is a necessary accoutrement in any free society — as I would advise fair-minded and sophisticated Muslims worldwide to do with respect to the actions of a small sect in Gainsville, Florida — a negligible minority of that community, let alone of the country as a whole.The remarkable thing is not that some band of nuts is burning Qurans in the United States in 2010, but that there haven’t been many more such nuts doing so over the past decade. To me, that speaks well of America, not poorly. I hope a semblance of objectivity reigns throughout Islamic communities in fairly assessing this event.

  • mrbradwii

    As many times as flags and Uncle Sam has been burned in effigy by chanting, ridiculous punks of every stripe, on every continent, you’d think that turnabout would be fair play.But these are books. Books are like genes, the genome of human thought. Would it be better if some books never existed? Mein Kampf? Communist Manifesto? The little Red Book? Atlas Shrugged? Free To Choose? Pick your poison, but the answer is no.Like the genome, there are “dead-ends”, vestiges of mutation and unfortunate selection. Only with these can we see that they are dead ends. We can study them, see the consequences of ideas implemented. Most important, they prevent us starting down the same dead-end!When we prune the branches of study, or the genome, we change the nature of future adaptations. Only with knowledge and history, we are siphoning off the contribution of millions of lifetimes. Humanity is a fabric of shared genetics and, one day, shared knowledge and the ability to navigate it.The Qu’ran, Bible, Gita, are ALL ridiculous books, but I defend to the death their right to exist in a free country. If you really want to make progress against terrorists, stop sending your money to Saudi Arabia. Period.The way to do this is convert from heating oil to natural gas, and from diesel to natural gas for cross country trucking. This is far more effective than the symbolic destruction of Mecca and Medina by burning religious tomes.If Americans felt hurt by every burnt flag or effigy, we’d be one pussified country. If anything, such retarded symbolism galvanizes us, gives us more resolve Do we expect that others are different in this respect?

  • mrbradwii

    As many times as flags and Uncle Sam has been burned in effigy by chanting, ridiculous punks of every stripe, on every continent, you’d think that turnabout would be fair play.But these are books. Books are like genes, the genome of human thought. Would it be better if some books never existed? Mein Kampf? Communist Manifesto? The little Red Book? Atlas Shrugged? Free To Choose? Pick your poison, but the answer is no.Like the genome, there are “dead-ends”, vestiges of mutation and unfortunate selection. Only with these can we see that they are dead ends. We can study them, see the consequences of ideas implemented. Most important, they prevent us starting down the same dead-end!When we prune the branches of study, or the genome, we change the nature of future adaptations. Only with knowledge and history, we are siphoning off the contribution of millions of lifetimes. Humanity is a fabric of shared genetics and, one day, shared knowledge and the ability to navigate it.The Qu’ran, Bible, Gita, are ALL ridiculous books, but I defend to the death their right to exist in a free country. If you really want to make progress against terrorists, stop sending your money to Saudi Arabia. Period.The way to do this is convert from heating oil to natural gas, and from diesel to natural gas for cross country trucking. This is far more effective than the symbolic destruction of Mecca and Medina by burning religious tomes.If Americans felt hurt by every burnt flag or effigy, we’d be one sorry excuse of country. If anything, such puerile symbolism galvanizes us, gives us more resolve Do we expect that others are different in this respect?

  • jonswitzer

    A prudent man overlooks an offense,but a fool shows his annoyance at once.

  • sheridan3003

    An open letter to Pastor Terry Jones,I write this letter on behalf of all of the civilian Americans spread throughout the Muslim world. I do not claim to represent them, but I do fear for them. I fear your actions will put lives in danger. Burning of ANY book is abhorrent. It shames me every time I see a book in flames, even one that is broken down, dilapidated and has the ink so faded from use that the words can hardly be read. You have the “right” to burn anything; our Supreme Court has ruled in the past that burning of books and burning of flags is protected under the first amendment. The question however is not whether you have the “right” to do it; the question is whether it is right to do such a thing. You do NOT have the “right” to endanger innocent lives. Please reconsider your actions. You can set a better example of Christian values by not burning the books. My suggestion is to stack them neatly in rows, then hold a prayer service around the books. Pray for world peace. Pray for understanding. Hold a Matthew 5:44 event. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;”Show the world that we are in fact a Christian nation. Right now Christians and Muslims are all afraid of each other.Burning something you are afraid of gives it power. Don’t give in to Fear. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. This is not the way, for many people will suffer from your actions. Please reconsider your actions and find something more constructive to do with your time on Saturday.You say you have prayed about this action. Why don’t you pray for those who persecute us, instead of praying about your own selfish actions?

  • catweasel3

    Book burning is just rude. Anyone who responds to a burning of a book by injuring or killing people is just as crazy as the book burner. The irony of all this is that the actions of one hateful person can set off the actions of another hateful person, and yet, the rest of us reasonable grownups can’t seem to manage to send the toddlers (the Rev and Terrorists from ANY religion) to their corners to finish out their tantrums alone.

  • jaybee4

    If we were talking about trying to eradicate a text, that might be a reason to throw a fuss, but this is purely symbolic. I don’t support book burning or inflammatory acts of stupidity, but this is a free country first and foremost. No knowledge is being lost here, just a lot of wasted paper.

  • kingpigeon

    “…you replicate images of a political brutality–book burnings in Germany in the 1930s–that will haunt our planet for generations to come.”In fact, this is why I’m not able to understand the fuss over the book burning. Book burning strikes me as a comically old-fashioned form of protest, worthy of laughter more than fear. It’s ideas that matter, not the paper they’re printed on. It’s the ability to distribute ideas that matters most of all. In the 1930s, book burning could have a real impact on the distribution of ideas. In the modern era, I can snag a copy of the Qu’ran off the internet anytime I want to. The anonymity and ubiquitousness of the internet means that any modern era book banning is likely only to cause MORE people to read that book, rather than fewer. Burn a book today, I’ll download it to my Kindle tomorrow.”Torch a book and you at least symbolically deny your fellow men and women that freedom ["of allowing people to read and decide for themselves whether what they read has meaning to them"].” What does that even mean, “symbolically denying a freedom”? What horror, for me to be “symbolically” denied anything! Can I be “symbolically” denied a job while still accepting it? “Symbolically” denied a paycheck while depositing it in the bank? What a bunch of nonsense.

  • datdamwuf2

    No matter how ugly the speech is, it is still speech. I do not blame the danish cartoonist for the actions of violent Muslims after publication of the cartoons depicting the prophet. I also cannot blame the crazy pastor for any violence that occurs as a reaction to his burning the Koran. Civilized people don’t kill people over cartoons or burned books, they exercise free speech themselves to protest.